GROTON — Could Groton and Dunstable become a single town again as they once were 338 years ago?
That was a question that arose at the Board of Selectmen’s meeting Monday, when Selectman Joshua Degen made the proposal. It was one of a number of suggestions dealing with the relationship between the two towns where they come together with the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District.
Degen brought the issue to the board in his capacity as a member of a Regional Agreement Review Committee tasked with reviewing the regional agreement between Groton and Dunstable that created the school district in 1967.
Degen was seeking guidance from the rest of the board on how to approach cost-sharing issues between Groton and Dunstable.
Degen invited former Dunstable selectman and fellow committee member Walter Alterisio to discuss Dunstable’s concerns about the relationship between the two towns. And in particular, the difference between the two in their ability to keep up with the costs of the school district.
Although the issue of school costs has been a regular one for Dunstable in the last several years, it has become more acute this year. Plans were recently revealed by the district for its fiscal 2017 budget that includes an estimated $4 million in increased spending, as well as one or more override measures adding further permanent increases for taxpayers.
After reviewing the original intent for the regionalization of schools, Alterisio reminded selectmen that not all small towns are created equally with some more affluent than others. In the latter category rested Groton, which has more fiscal resources than does more rural, less developed Dunstable.
Since 1967, said Alterisio, much had changed regarding state contributions and especially unfunded mandates making the regional system less attractive than it once was.
For that reason, Alterisio suggested the use of an “alternative formula” for determining each town’s assessment in school support. One that could be invoked when needed.
Currently, Groton pays about 77 percent of regional costs to Dunstable’s 23 percent.
It’s an equation that’s at the point of unsustainability for Dunstable, especially if school spending continues upward.
What is needed, said Alterisio, is to look at different ways to solve the fiscal problems with a goal of long-term sustainability for both towns.
That was when, “thinking outside the box,” Degen made the suggestion of possibly re-merging Groton and Dunstable into a single community, sharing the same administration, police, etc. as well as the school system.
Before 1673, Groton as well as other local towns, were part of greater Dunstable so the suggestion was not necessarily as outlandish as it may seem.
“Nothing is off the table,” replied Alterisio before the hearing ended.
Also at Monday’s meeting, a majority of selectmen were convinced by Town Manager Mark Haddad and Treasurer Michael Hartnett of the value of keeping a payroll coordinator position filled in the busy treasurer’s office.
The question of whether to keep the vacated position filled pending ongoing budget planning for fiscal 2017 was raised by Chairman Jack Petropoulos who suggested that it might be expedient to leave the position empty so that if it is later decided that it could be discontinued, it would not mean laying off anyone.
But Hartnett, backed up by Haddad, argued that the position is “critical” to the operation of his office.
“We’re already feeling the pain,” said Hartnett of the lost 35 hours a week the position called for. “It would be a severe burden to remove this position from our office. I just feel that we cannot function without this position.”
Haddad supported Hartnett’s argument stating that even if a zero-based budget he was currently working on for 2017 called for numerous layoffs, he would not go without the payroll coordinator position.
“I wouldn’t make any cuts in the treasurer’s office,” Haddad said.
In the end, the position was saved.
Selectmen also learned from attorney Robert Collins of an offer by Groton School to design and build a sidewalk down Farmers Row to Peabody Street and Old Ayer Road. The reason, said Collins, is to “improve pedestrian safety” along the busy thoroughfare.
Construction of the sidewalk, along with five crosswalks and signage, would cost an estimated $2.5 million and represented “an enormous financial commitment and something we can all enjoy” said Collins.
In addition to the sidewalk, Collins said that the work would also include a reconfiguration of the intersection of Peabody Street and Farmers Row, changing a fork to a T intersection.
Agreeing to hold a public hearing on the issue, selectmen asked Collins that the school inform abutters of the plan, whose property the town’s right-of-way would use for the new sidewalk, ahead of the meeting.